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Georgia: Why our protests are the new frontline against Putin-style democratic crackdowns across Europe

Protests in Georgia have continued over a law campaigners say is similar to one in Putin's Russia
Protests in Georgia have continued over a law campaigners say is similar to one in Putin's Russia

Protests in Georgia are continuing over plans to introduce a ‘Putin-style’ law against ‘foreign influence.’ Here, academic Gia Jandieri – under threat himself from the new legislation – explains why Georgians are taking to the streets

Controversial? Divisive? No, More Than That, It’s Unlawful and Anti-Constitutional

To understand where we’ve got to, we must start at the start.

The Georgian government adopted the Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence” last week. It runs the risk of crippling civil society – and is known as the ‘Russian Law’ for a reason.

The ruling Georgian Dream party claims that the country is facing a threat from agents of foreign influence, particularly from a “Global War Party” that includes local and international non-governmental organisations (including our organisation, the New Economic School, which was founded in 2001).

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The ruling party has made unsubstantiated claims that these groups have attempted to incite revolutions in the recent past. The legislation successfully passed its third reading on May 14 and is now awaiting Presidential approval.

The new effort to adopt the law (after cosmetically eliminating the word “Agent” from the bill’s name) was initiated in early April and resulted in a wave of large-scale protests that lasted more than five weeks. The law was introduced and approved with three hearings starting in March 2023. Mass demonstrations, which were met by a violent crackdown from riot police, forced the government to pause the process and ultimately withdraw the law with a firm promise never to bring it back.

Georgians – and all of the country’s foreign friends and partners – swallowed this lie and breathed a sigh of relief. At least until the law was brazenly reintroduced with the false claims that the U.S. and EU have similar laws despite radical rejections by western leaders.

Georgian protests will continue

The goal of the law is to impose restrictions on civil society and the media, whose influence the government wants to diminish before the upcoming general elections. The leaders of the governing party claim that it is only demanding transparency from these organisations and that it merely wants to know from which foreign sources they receive funding and what kind of activities they spend the money on.

This claim is a false propaganda as, one, any grants are already registered by the ministry of finance and they have the same tax obligations as all other activities, and two, non-governmental organisations are in fact the most transparent organisations, publishing all their financial and activity statements. The law would require such organisations, if they receive more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad, to self-declare and register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power”.

So, it is clear that this law can only serve to discredit civil society. In one statement condemning the protests against the new law, the Speaker of the Georgian parliament announced plans to create a list of “enemies”, which immediately resulted in a number of people being severely beaten in the streets and posters being hung everywhere, including outside people’s homes, decrying “enemies of the state” and “foreign agents”.

The mass-demonstrations have been led by young people, primarily university and high school students. Politicians from the opposition had less influence. On the evening of May 11, more than two hundred thousand people took to the city centre, despite the day’s heavy rains. Special forces and, in some cases, officers from the regular and criminal police, repeatedly used disproportionate force, including water cannons, tear-gas, rubber-bullets, and violent beatings of peaceful protesters. The demonstrators believe that this “Russian Law” will be harmful to their interests, their future, and to Georgia’s hopes of joining the EU.

Why are people calling this new bill the “Russian Law”? Because it closely mirrors a Russian law on “foreign agents”, which led to the systematic elimination of independent media outlets, civil society organisations, and individual opponents.

Georgians fear the same danger. At the same time, it is Russia that completely disregards the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals.

The Georgian analogue is also definitely anti-constitutional and violates several articles of the Georgian constitution, including freedom of association, the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and, also, special article (78) that requires the Georgian government to ensure Georgia’s European and Transatlantic integration. If adopted, Georgia will also be in violation of several European and international human, civil, and political rights conventions and treaties it agreed and signed.

These international agreements are designed to defend individuals against governmental abuses of power, including protecting individuals and independent organisations from government abuse and excessive demands for financial transparency. These fundamental rights and freedoms cannot be revoked even by a supermajority in a direct vote by the people. Passing the new law would likely derail Georgia’s massive efforts to join the EU, despite huge majority support for EU accession within the country, as well as isolating Georgia financially and logistically, and shrinking trade and investment. It could also mean Georgia’s political dependence on Russia again.

The leaders of the EU, its member nations, the U.S., and UK have all very generously supported Georgia since its independence and have made countless statements warning that the law, if adopted, could jeopardise – or even block – Georgia’s progress towards EU membership. Several experts (me included) have also warned that Georgia’s economy would suffer greatly.

The authorities responded to such warnings by saying that they are simply trying to defend Georgia from foreign enemies (though, of course, not from Russia, which occupies 20 per cent of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory) and especially from what they call the “Global War Party” (they also tried to frighten the people of Georgia by claiming that somebody was pushing Georgia to open a second front against Russia). Nevertheless, most experts are sure this is nothing more than a concerted effort to stay in power after the elections.

Georgia spent almost a decade being overlooked by the West, but its candidacy for EU membership was approved last year. It would appear that Russia is not very happy with this development and is actively seeking ways to impede Georgia’s progress.

The Speaker of the Georgian parliament announced plans to create a list of “enemies”, which immediately resulted in a number of people being severely beaten in the streets and posters being hung everywhere, including outside people’s homes, decrying “enemies of the state” and “foreign agents”.

However, the overwhelming support from the Georgian people on the streets over the last six weeks, along with the backing of a surprisingly large number of foreign allies at the highest levels, has encouraged Georgians to continue their fight. This show of solidarity is not only beneficial for Georgians, but also for Armenians, who aspire to follow a similar path, as well as for all nations in the Caucasus and Central Asia region. With its free market and strong governance, Georgia can be a valuable partner for the Western nations.

The vast majority of foreign grants received by non-governmental organisations and independent media outlets in Georgia come from the EU and U.S. This suggests that the new law is a deliberate effort to limit funding from Georgia’s key partners such as the EU, USAID, and GIZ. The current political climate, characterised by conflicting and hostile statements towards Western countries by the ruling party, coupled with a recent strategic partnership agreement with China, leaves little room for doubt that this is nothing less than another attempt by the government to shift the country’s geopolitical alignment.

Georgia needs the Rule of Law, not the Rule of a Man.

Professor Gia Jandieri is an economist, and founder and vice president of the New Economic School in Georgia